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June, 2009

Japanese Beetles, Stump Burning, and a Boy Behaving Badly

by Larry

When I was growing up, I lived the longest, four years, at 121 E. Marshall Street, Falls Church, VA. My dad, who worked then mostly at the Pentagon, my mom, and I were the only ones in our family the majority of that time. My sister seemed to come along only in the last few months of our stay there, as I was conveniently unaware of her existence the whole nine months before her birth in April, 1951. I was four when we moved there, eight when we left, heading off for Dad's next military assignment, in Omaha, NE.

Dad and Mom were rightly pleased to have bought the brick house where we lived in Falls Church. It was a fine place, with a main floor, a spacious basement, and an attic that Dad fixed up with knotty pine paneling and walk-in closets. The yard, which Dad at first and later I too would cut with the reel mower, was big for an in-town lot by today's standards, probably close to an acre. The front lawn was small, maybe just about 50 by 25 feet, but there were side yards, and the back was deep, with plentiful grass covering the greater part of it and a large vegetable garden in a rectangle farthest from the house. There the drainage was good from the higher turf, so it was easy to keep it moist enough even on hot summer days.

The place had few trees, none at all that I remember on the sides or in back, and just a handful in front. What few there were seemed to be too many, and I, who loved going down about a block away from our home to a vacant woods area that had a cheerful creek running through and was thick with growths of trees, did not understand this. Our arbors may have been half-diseased or trash-trees, but I had a kid's naive regard for them. Dad, without my innocence, felt it was best to cut them down. Their stumps then lay exposed and sticking up just above the surface of the rest of the yard. He had several small spherical metal containers with wicks, for holding and burning kerosene, to put out around one's car at night if there were an accident or a flat or some such, to warn away other drivers. There were no flairs or reflective painted triangles for such purposes that I recall from those days. So, he poured a little kerosene on the stumps and lit them, the fires small and smoldering for several days and nights as they slowly converted wood to ash. And to caution folks not to walk on the stumps in the dark, this being before it was fashionable for people to calmly stride over red-hot cinders, he would put those kerosene spheres out, one to a stump. Soon enough, the trees were absent or mostly so, and not even their stumps remained high enough to be seen. A little dirt could be put over their cooled down ash pits, and grass over that. In a short while, the yard looked more uniform and was easier to cut.

In our little nuclear household, everyday was Father's Day. I had personal duties for looking after Dad - not that I was ever asked if I wanted them! - as his valet, taking him his slippers after he would get home from work or finish his weekend afternoon projects, and removing his regular shoes, which I was then to shine up for him with a special brush or wax and polish to a lustrous gleam on weekends, plus taking off his stinky day socks and the little suspenders that fastened around each calf and held them up, and sliding onto his feet his fresh evening socks and next his slippers, all just so. I think maybe Dad had gotten used to having "Colored" soldiers doing these things for him during the war, or maybe he just liked having a servant, like the generals did, even though he had never had any himself before I was on the scene.

Not long after we had moved to Falls Church and gotten the place on E. Marshall Street, we were invaded. Besides the daily job as Dad's valet, I had already before this been tasked with using a special long tool for cutting the roots of weeds in our yard, then pulling them out and disposing of them by the bucketful into the garden's mulch area.

But now I had a new job. An inch or two depth of kerosene would be poured into an empty coffee can or some other big tin can, and then I would go around to all the plants in our yard and pick off by the handfuls the hundreds of wriggling, scratchy-legged Japanese beetles. They were almost everywhere then, on just about all the flowers and shrubs. I would drop them into the kerosene, which killed them. I think for good measure we also burned their kerosene-soaked bodies.

I knew that World War Two was over. First we had beaten the Germans, a few of whom on my father's side might have been my ancestors or distant relations. And then we had beaten the "Japs." Dad had been in the war but had come back OK. But I thought Mom said her brother had lost the hearing in one ear from an infection he caught in New Guinea or some other place where he had been in the Pacific fighting.

But now the "Japs" had sent us their darned beetles! I thought they were spoil-sports and cheaters not to just accept that they were beaten, but instead were doing something sneaky like infecting our country with their thousands or millions of beetles. So, I killed them with a certain extra pleasure. I might not have been able to fight the "Japs," except with my sets of lead soldiers in endless maneuvers and games on the living room rug in the evenings after supper, but I could at least kill their beetles.

When we lived there in Falls Church, after awhile Mom had taken in a boarder kid, Ritchie. He was a year older than me and mean. He was often getting in hot water and trying to get me into trouble too. I liked everyone to think he was the only one who was doing stuff he shouldn't. But the truth was I could be bad too, and besides Ritchie was only there for a year or so, but I was doing things on my own before he got there and after he had left. I had not a few whippings (though never with whips!), and mostly I deserved them, but I also got away with stuff when I could.

There was a vacant lot for awhile next to our place, and among its weeds, tall grasses, wildflowers, and random shrubs there were a few small piles or scattered debris of trash in there, with broken glass or exposed sharp edges of cans or other pieces of metal, etc., before the area was cleared and a new house was built there. I had been told most definitely I was not to go over there, but my curiosity and sense of adventure were too great for me to listen carefully to those admonitions. I still think my parents were being overprotective, but rules were rules, and I broke them - and would probably do so again in the same situation - so I had to suffer the corporeal consequences.

Once Mom had just bought a big new record. I do not remember what was on it, songs, stories, or something else. Back then records were not flexible like they were later. It was still in its sleeve and lying flat on the sofa. I just was not thinking and sat on it. Of course it cracked in two at once. I was afraid I would get a licking for that, so I just went into another room and did things in there till Mom found out it was broken. I tried to make out it must have been that way from the store. I even lied when she asked me if I knew how it had happened.

I was not too careful either with my aquarium. I kept dropping all sorts of water creatures in there, some of which, like crayfish, actually had an appetite for cute mollies and goldfish. I even on occasion took a secret delight in some of the ghoulish, if sort of accidental results.

I never stole from my parents, at least not more than a few cookies I filched from the cookie jar, stuff like that. Chances are I just never had a good chance to, or I might have. If I had, I figured I would have been in big trouble. You could not get away with too much in our house, and the broken record was the exception that proved that rule.

But one of the boys on our block, a fellow I knew pretty well and had played with some, named Frank I believe, was caught after having taken money out of his father's wallet, and there was so much noise made about it around our neighborhood and then by my parents, you would think he was going to be sent off to reform school for that one bit of larceny.

I did do something deliberately once that I got tanned for, and I certainly should have. I was down in the basement by myself. I think I was still too young to be in school, but for some reason I was on my own there that afternoon. Maybe Mom was working in the garden or visiting with neighbors. Dad would have still been at work. I took a hammer out of the shop he had made for himself down there, but in itself that was not a problem. He would have been delighted if I had tried to build things with it. He had all sorts of tools plus a still working electric motor from an old vacuum cleaner, a grinder, a big workbench, a table saw, plenty of pieces of scrap wood (and, indeed, I did later use some of them to make myself a little bathtub navy), and about a ton of old nails, screws, washers, bolts, and such.

There were about half a dozen dining room chairs in the basement then too. They were looking really nice with new fake leather upholstery seats, well fitted and almost professionally done. The wooden portions of the chairs had been sanded down and then varnished, so with the new upholstered seat covers they all looked really spiffy.

I tried the hammer out on various surfaces there in the basement to see how it felt and sounded. I banged it hard against a metal pillar or two, the concrete floor, the workbench, and so forth. But none of these experiments gave me true satisfaction.

Then I thought about the freshly redone dining room chairs. At first, I kind of just softly dropped the hammer's head onto the new upholstery of one. I noticed there was very little give there. It would not take much to put a hole in it. Next I swung the hammer with a little more force. Sure enough, a hole, about quarter-size, was neatly punched out of the tight fabric.

I have only a vague memory of what happened next. So I do not know for sure if, as I think occurred, I went on to punch at least one hole in the seat fabric of each chair, or if I left well enough alone after the first one. In any case, there was no joy in Mudville that night once my acting out had been discovered. I believe, in addition to being sore for awhile in the sit-down place, I lost my dime a week allowance for an extended period.

A close friend of mine and I did something that had way out of proportion effects. We both knew we were not supposed to be playing together in his house when his parents were not there. But it was after school, for by then I was in grade school, and we were bored, so we went over to his place. He suggested we do something down in the basement. But there was no handrail on the stairs like there was in my house, and I quickly lost my footing near the top and fell the rest of the way down, banging my head hard against something sharp along the way. My friend still wanted to play, but I was banged up and badly bruised, and my head hurt, so I just wanted to go home. Then my friend was looking at me funny because I was bleeding a lot out of the place where something sharp had hit my head, toward the top but in back (where I still have a scar). So, we went back upstairs, through a couple rooms, down a little hall, and then to the bathroom. We got a bunch of toilet paper and piled it on the cut. The tissues were soon full of bright red blood, and that was scary. We threw them in the wastebasket and got some more. Eventually there was less blood coming out, and I went home to my place. But Mother later got a call from my friend's mom. She was concerned about me, I think, but mainly she was pissed about how, between the basement and the bathroom, I had bled all over their new carpeting. This had not been discovered till a couple or three hours after I had been dripping blood everywhere, and so it had had a chance to stain into the weave.

Oh well. I felt badly about it, but, as they say these days, stuff happens.

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